As most teens and adults with Asperger syndrome know, people with Asperger syndrome can be significantly depressed. The rates of diagnoses of depression vary among studies, from 18% to 22%. The most commonly quoted rate of a depression in the general population of the US is 6.7%. Most of the research shows both genders have these high rates of depression.
Studies focused on males and females and not those who are transgender. There are more people who identify as transgender in the AS population than in the general population and transgender people have a higher rate of depression. One would guess that someone who is both AS and transgender might have a high tendency towards depression.
Interestingly, non-autistic full siblings and half-siblings of individuals with ASD (not just Asperger syndrome) also had higher rates of depression than the general population, although at half the rate of those with ASD. Studies of suicide attempts are also very troubling. In studies of suicide, the rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts are prevalent, especially in adolescence and young adulthood.
It’s critical to identify depression, since it can be treated.
It’s obviously important to understand why rates of depression and suicidal thoughts are so high. One factor, given the findings in siblings, is that there is an increased genetic vulnerability to depression, although large studies haven’t supported a common genetic overlap. We have to look to other factors to account for these high rates of depression.
It’s important to diagnose clinical depression for anyone for a simple reason – depression is treatable with a variety of modalities:
- and possibly neurobiofeedback.
With treatment, individuals might have a more accurate sense of their strengths as well as their challenges. They might have a greater sense of hopefulness and more appreciation for the positive in their lives if they are not depressed.
About half of the people studied in a large sample were identified having an ASD only after being diagnosed with depression. This is a common occurrence. People with AS are given other psychiatric diagnoses, and these other problems bring them to the attention of mental health professionals for assessment.
AS individuals who aren’t diagnosed and those around them don’t understand their experiences to be typical of AS. This means a significant number of people with ASD, usually those who are high functioning and likely Aspergers, are slipping by without having anyone understand the internal stress. Internal stress can come as a result of issues with social communication, bullying, exclusion, and the knowledge that they were different and didn’t fit in.
This anxiety and pain can result in depression, with long-term consequences.
It’s critical that professionals and schools recognize symptoms such as social problems, inflexibility, sensory sensitivity, and intense interests as possible signals of AS and recommend evaluation even in students doing well academically. I find many adults self-diagnose from online tests or have partners who suggest an AS diagnosis. Whatever the age, understanding, support, and appropriate treatment are crucial.
by Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
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